How To Raise Turkeys While Avoiding Profit

We persist in learning the hard way. We keep on farming when our bees leave town, our cow refuses to get pregnant, our chickens are eaten by marauding neighborhood dogs. Somehow these trials don’t persuade us to farm conventionally even though most other beekeepers use pesticides in their hives, other farmers cull older cows, and most “free range” chickens don’t actually have any freedom.

Now we’re skipping down another highly educational path.

Every November we buy a turkey or two from our friends at Tea Hills Farms It’s a beautiful drive and we’re glad that our purchase helps sustain their farm. Every November we also talk about raising our own flock of turkeys, especially after paying $70 to $90 per bird for our holiday table. We have no plans to replicate Tea Hills’ business, but simply hope that, on a smaller scale, we might be able to supply ourselves and our customers with naturally raised turkeys.

A friend who has experience with raising turkeys told us (gently) that our hopes were foolhardy. She said our plans to avoid medications and artificial vitamins in the feed would leave us with no survivors. Many onlinetales of turkey-raising attempts repeated her woeful account.

But do we listen? Naw.

We ordered 15 turkey chicks from the ever-amazing Julia at Spencer Feed. That was our first expense.

Then, because we don’t have the equipment to raise them indoors for the necessary six to eight weeks we had Mark’s friends, an Amish family, care for them. These lucky birds were kept carefully tended in the family’s kitchen. It was an unseasonably hot spring, and Elmer told us that he found every excuse possible to stay out of the fowl smelling house. One bird sadly perished during that time, so our small flock was down to 14. We picked up the peeping little birds and paid Elmer. Another expense.

chicken tractor, grassfed turkeys, pastured turkeys, At home Mark and Ben welded together a turkey tractor. This is a moveable coop which they custom designed to fold up for storage between seasons. Entirely out of metal, it was modified several times over the first few weeks. They built it with roosts but we soon learned that the turkeys didn’t care to perch. The roosts came out. After the turkeys spilled copious amounts of grain Mark added hangers so that the feeder could be suspended from the top. And after some concerns about predators, they added a movable electric fence. Yup, more expenses.

Most books about raising turkeys offer advice for conventional farmers, including warnings about keeping turkeys “on wire,” indoors and away from (gasp) the disease-carrying dangers of grass. Our turkeys are considered pastured birds because they have constant access to grass and bugs. In fact Claire, principal turkey wrangler, moves the turkey tractor several times a day.

How much these quickly growing chicks eat surprised us. We give them fresh organic produce from the garden each day. They have strong preferences. They love tomatoes, squash and watermelon. They’ll consider zucchini, cucumbers and spinach. They do not care for rutabagas or broccoli. But the cost of feed is startling. Four bags of locally grown grain and seed cost nearly $50. By now they’re getting through those four bags in about two weeks. Another expense.

Aside from the expense, we’ve found that turkey farming is interesting. The toms gobble at any noisy airborne attractions: Canada geese, crows and helicopters. No matter how long they’ve been here we find ourselves smiling at each gobble. Then hens chirp and cluck in their own quiet manner while the toms are prone to show-off displays of exaggerated feather fluffing. Their heads turn iridescent blue when they’re annoyed and sometimes they engage in snood-grabbing jousts. Our dogs are fascinated by the turkeys and visit each time they get a chance. The turkeys don’t seem to mind the attention. One of our chickens visits them most days, hanging around like a friendly fowl diplomat from a nearby land.

Then this week our mistakes became evident. First one, then another bird slowed down and died. We were terribly saddened. Turns out that they grew too big too quickly and their hearts gave out. The manuals we read gave instructions about feeding non-pastured turkeys, but ours have the benefit of fresh grass and bugs (not to mention all that produce) so they’ve gotten big and done so quickly. It also turns out that we started too soon. We should have bought chicks mid-summer. Our birds are now Thanksgiving size much too early. On the plus side, our turkeys have remained much healthier than their factory-farmed counterparts and never suffered from any of the predicted ill health. Well, until they got so big that they keeled over.

So this week we took the biggest of the birds, the toms, to a local USDA inspected slaughterhouse, located on at Plum Creek Farm. Mark lost his glasses in the drive, fortunately they were there when he went back or our turkey venture would have cost us even more. When we returned for pick up we were surprised to find that the birds dressed out between 24 and 36 pounds.

So this week we took the biggest of the birds, the toms, to a local USDA inspected slaughterhouse, located on at Plum Creek Farm. Mark lost his glasses in the drive, fortunately they were there when he went back or our turkey venture would have cost us even more. When we returned for pick up we were surprised to find that the birds dressed out between 24 and 36 pounds.

Because we failed to have them fresh in time for Thanksgiving, we’re not charging our customers the same price we’d planned (on par with Tea Hill’s price of $3 per pound). We’re asking $2.50, knowing that learning is its own reward. Maybe next year we can put those hard-earned lessons to good use as we continue to contribute our small efforts to the cause of sustainable living.

pastured turkeys, homestead turkey farming,


About these ads

About Laura Grace Weldon

Laura Grace Weldon is a writer and editor, perhaps due to an English professor's scathing denunciation of her writing as "curious verbiage." She's the author of "Free Range Learning," a handbook of natural learning and "Tending," a poetry collection. (lauragraceweldon.com) She's working on her next book, "Subversive Cooking" (subversivecooking.com). She lives on Bit of Earth Farm where she is a barely useful farm wench. Although she has deadlines to meet she often wanders from the computer to preach hope, snort with laughter, cook subversively, talk to chickens and cows, discuss life’s deeper meaning with her surprisingly tolerant offspring, sing to bees, hide in books, walk dogs, concoct tinctures, watch foreign films, and make messy art.
This entry was posted in frugality, grassfed, turkey and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s